Sunday 12th March 2017
Natascha Engel, Deputy Speaker in the House of Commons and Labour MP for North East Derbyshire
If the Brexit vote told us anything, it is that democracy in the UK is not in crisis. But it is changing. Power is, and has been for many years now, shifting from Parliament to people, and we, Members of Parliament, need to shift with it.
On the surface, Gina Miller’s Supreme Court victory against the Government, on who triggers Article 50, is a win for Parliament but it is significant that it was a voter, not an MP, who brought the case and won. Also important is that the case came in the wake of the country voting to leave the European Union in a referendum. Referendums are rare in the UK because, under our current system, the electorate votes once every five years to choose their representatives and, after this, has little influence over how MPs vote until the next General Election. Referendums happen when Parliament needs a steer from people.
But when people voted to leave the EU, Parliament was put into a tricky position, as the vast majority of MPs (480) campaigned to remain in the EU, while only 159 voted to leave. In our representative form of democracy, Parliament is suddenly in danger of being not very representative at all.
Edmund Burke once famously said: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” MPs have, increasingly, been listening to and acting on the opinions of their constituents. And MPs have been aware of the demand for a greater say in the day-to-day working of their representatives.
Technology has helped a significant part of our electorate to access their MPs and ask for direct input into our (or their) democracy. The use of social media, greater attention to casework and constituency activities, public consultations and surveys, and petitions (including the Government petitions website and the new petitions committee), have all been in response to our internet savvy constituents, who contact us via change.org, 38degrees, theyworkforyou.com or the Taxpayers’ Alliance.
The increasing focus on meeting constituency demands naturally means less attention to Parliamentary duties, such as bill committees and debates. But there is one part of the Parliamentary system which works well, engages with people outside of Westminster and could be expanded and improved: Select Committees.
At the moment, our select committees have around 11 members and scrutinise the work of entire departments. They meet weekly, run enquiries and produce detailed reports. Most importantly, they take evidence from experts, academics, users of public services, industry and members of the public.
But only a minority of MPs are members of select committees and their remit is far too wide for proper scrutiny, especially when it comes to departmental expenditure. Occasionally, a select committee will travel outside Westminster to take evidence in the “real world” but, on the whole, they are Parliament-based and focused.
Departmental select committees could be split into subject areas; so, for instance, Communities and Local Government could have sub-committees – housing, planning and infrastructure, local government, waste management and so on – which would meet with other smaller, subject-based select committees from DEFRA, for example, for an enquiry on flooding. The committees would be encouraged to take evidence outside of Westminster, especially with campaign groups, for instance, on wind-farms, incinerators and HS2.
Each department could have one finance committee that looks only at departmental expenditure and budgets, in order to support the over-worked Public Accounts Committee and provide far deeper and closer scrutiny of how taxpayers’ money is spent.
Members on those more specific select committees could then form the pool from which bill committee membership is drawn to ensure that, line-by-line, scrutiny is carried out by specialists, rather than people who may not have any interest in a subject.
It would mean that constituents with an interest in animal welfare or football governance, for example, would have a committee with which they could engage more actively and make Parliament more open to participation.
There is a real appetite out there which Parliament could harness more constructively, to ensure that our representative democracy represents its people day in and day out, and not just once every five years.